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Gatekeepers of knowledge

Imagine a future 30 years from now where Google remains the dominant Internet company, and continues to offer new digital services that make our lives more convenient and efficient. This may come in the form of better knowledge organization, such as advanced versions of its existing search assistance and email intelligence features, or entirely new frontiers like healthcare services and telecommunications infrastructure. More than it already is, in this hypothetical future Google will be the largest collection of data about the day-to-day lives of humankind that has ever been put together in our entire history of existence.

Today, Google can aggregate the locations and speeds of all drivers using Google Maps for navigation to figure out traffic conditions and reroute navigation. Imagine the scientific insights that one could gain from studying the daily movements of billions of people in tens of thousands of cities using over 30 years of historical data. The high-level knowledge extracted from this wealth of information would facilitate new commercial ventures by enabling services like self-driving cars and more on-demand deliveries. But more importantly, this understanding has the incredible potential to radically reimagine the way human societies, both physical and hierarchical, ought to be organized and managed. The question is, through what mechanism would this knowledge be shared and used to improve society?

Let us assume that notions of corporate data ownership remain as they are today. Data collected by Google is in some sense owned by Google, perhaps not in the strict legal sense, but certainly for all practical purpose of access and distribution. Under this assumption, Google has little reason to share the knowledge it steadily accumulates. What it does share, it does so out of good will, but for the most part, knowledge is kept internal in order to maintain a competitive edge.

In such a future, economists and social scientists who work for Google would enjoy an overwhelming advantage over those who did not. A few decades ago, government agencies were the main source of census and statistical data upon which an open ecosystem of universities and research institutions created knowledge for all. A few decades from now, only those who serve the interest of Google will be blessed with access to the proprietary data that can make and break academic careers. It might not be Google and perhaps there is room for more than one ruling corporation, but nevertheless, the power to understand humanity will lie in private hands.

To see this effect at work, we can look at the rapid advances made in artificial intelligence in recent years. Machine learning algorithms and techniques are decades old, but seemingly magical feats like image recognition and natural language translation are made possible today by applying these methods to exponentially growing collections of data under the control of private companies. Today’s top computer science universities are losing professors and PhD students to tech companies not only because of the perks but also because of the allure of large private datasets that can lead to exclusive discoveries. Uber recently poached 40 researchers and professors from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab and moved them across the street to a new research facility to work on self-driving cars. A quick look at Stanford’s CS department’s faculty list reveals professors who remain nominally affiliated with the school but are actually heading research efforts at tech companies.

Centuries ago, most literate people belonged to the clergy. By controlling the means of transmitting knowledge, the church — the birthplace of modern universities — was the gatekeeper of knowledge and exerted great influence over national policies. In the postmodern religion of technology, a new breed of gatekeepers will challenge governments and academia for the right to decide the future.

 

Contact Raven Jiang at jcx ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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